Interpreting Crime Statistics
The following statistical overviews represent a snapshot of the most recent findings about the status of crime in the United States. This section includes an overview on crime trends and data on 15 selected categories of crime: assault; burglary, robbery, and theft; children, youth, and teen victimization; crimes against persons with disabilities; economic and financial crime; elder victimization; hate and bias crime; homicide; human trafficking; intimate partner violence; school and campus crime; sexual violence; stalking; urban and rural crime; and workplace violence.
Using these statistics effectively requires understanding their sources. Among the most heavily cited authorities in this section are two studies from the U.S. Department of Justice—the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). These studies measure the scope, magnitude, and impact of crime in the United States, but they differ in methodology, focus, and information produced.
The UCR compiles crimes known to law enforcement, including victims of all ages, while the NCVS is based on a large, national sample of Americans age 12 and older; the NCVS offers important insights into what criminologists call the “dark figure of crime,” or crimes that have not been reported. Criminologists compare, contrast, and analyze data from these two sources to identify and assess current crime trends in the United States. Taken as a whole, these studies represent a highly useful but nonetheless incomplete picture of crime in our nation.
Uniform Crime Report
The UCR, launched in 1929, collects information reported to law enforcement agencies on the following crimes: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Law enforcement agencies also report arrest data for 21 additional crime categories (e.g, forgery and counterfeiting, drug abuse violations, disorderly conduct, vagrancy). Each year, the FBI issues a report on the main UCR findings, titled Crime in the United States, as well as several other reports (e.g., Hate Crimes 2010 and In the Line of Duty: Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2010). The UCR presents crime counts for the entire nation, as well as for regions, states, counties, cities, towns, tribal law enforcement, and colleges and universities. Its primary purpose is to provide reliable criminal justice statistics for law enforcement administration and management.
National Crime Victimization Survey
The methodology for the NCVS, which began in 1973, differs from that of the UCR. The NCVS is based on interviews with a nationally representative sample of U.S. households and is conducted by U.S. Census Bureau personnel at six-month intervals for three years. All household members age 12 and older are interviewed. The NCVS collects information on the frequency and nature of crimes of rape, sexual assault, personal robbery, aggravated and simple assault, household burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft; it does not, however, measure homicide or commercial crimes. It gathers information on crimes both reported and not reported to the police, estimates the proportion of each crime reported to law enforcement, and describes the reasons victims gave for reporting or not reporting. The NCVS also includes questions about victims’ experiences with the criminal justice system, possible substance abuse by offenders, and how victims sought to protect themselves.
The NCVS collects periodic age and demographic information about both victims and offenders (e.g., age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, income, and educational level, as well as offenders’ relationships to their victims), and includes information about the crimes (time and place of occurrence, use of weapons, nature of injury, and economic impact). The NCVS also publishes supplements on specific crime issues such as stalking or school crime and provides previously unavailable data about crime that has not been reported.
Differences between the UCR and NCVS
Although the categories of crime covered by the UCR and NCVS overlap, their methodologies differ, and the studies serve different purposes. The UCR covers all victims of reported crime, but the NCVS gathers data on crimes against people ages 12 and older. The UCR covers homicide, arson, and commercial crimes, which the NCVS does not measure. The studies use somewhat different definitions of some crimes, and they report crime using different bases, e.g., per capita—crimes per 100,000 persons (UCR) versus crimes per 1,000 households (NCVS). The UCR measures crimes actually reported to law enforcement nationwide, and the NCVS addresses crimes not reported to law enforcement, as well as other specified crimes against people ages 12 and older.
What We Know about Crime in the United States
In general (and despite occasional variations), crime in the United States has declined measurably for decades. Between 1993 and 2010, for example, “the violent crime victimization rate declined steadily from 49.9 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 1993 to 14.9 per 1,000 in 2010, a decline of 70 percent.” During that same interval, “the property crime victimization rate declined 50 percent from 318.9 per 1,000 households in 1993 to 159.0 per 1,000 households in 2002, and to 120.2 per 1,000 households in 2010.
As the statistical overviews in this section demonstrate, we can make the following generalizations about other important crime patterns and trends:
- Overall, crime is disproportionately committed by males (see “Homicide”).
- Some crimes (e.g., stalking, intimate partner violence, sexual assault), are predominantly committed by males against females (see “Stalking,” “Intimate Partner Violence”).
- Although crime tends to disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities (both as victims and offenders), most crimes are committed by whites against whites.
- Certain populations are disproportionately affected by crime, not necessarily because of the sheer numbers of victims but as a result of crime’s greater impact on these groups (see “Elder Victimization,” “Crime against Persons with Disabilities,” “Children, Youth, and Teen Victimization”).
- Young people (16-24) are the population group most victimized by crime. They also commit the most crimes (see “Children, Youth, and Teen Victimization”).
What We Don’t Know about Crime
- The “big picture” on many important issues. We can’t analyze or report on crimes that we don’t measure. Because many important issues have not been the subjects of annual national studies, sufficient data on these subjects is not available for general analysis and for inclusion in the National Crime Victims’ Rights Week Resource Guide. For example, we do not have enough information about human trafficking, crimes against LGBTQ individuals, elder victimization, crimes against those with disabilities, the mental health effects of crime, victimization and offending by the same individuals, and the relation of socioeconomic status, as well as substance abuse, to crime.
- Why crime has decreased so significantly. Although the decrease in crime has been steady and remarkably consistent, criminologists have reached no widely held conclusions about the reasons for these patterns.
- How increased attention to certain crimes (e.g., child sexual abuse, elder abuse) affects what we know about them. For example, we know anecdotally that increasing awareness about child sexual abuse builds support for more research and education about the crime, its present and past prevalence, and the best ways to work with victims and prevent future crimes. But we do not know the precise impact of this increased attention on our knowledge about and response to these crimes. Further research is needed to clarify these issues.
Important Notes about the Statistics
The information presented in the following statistical overviews reflects the findings in the reports and other sources cited for each topic. The data are based on the best available information about known cases as of September 2012. (The latest Bureau of Justice Statistics study, Criminal Victimization 2011, is available online at www.bjs.gov). The overviews do not comprehensively cover all cases of these crimes, or all possible variables.
Each statistical overview includes both text and graphics. Graphics have been added to this year’s Resource Guide to provide a visual representation of the data. Please note that, on the charts and graphs that accompany the statistics, the percentages do not always add up to 100 because the numbers have been rounded.